The beginning of September means the closing and opening of seasonal opportunities. The days of summer are drifting away, but there’s always new promise in autumn. There are celebratory opportunities with Halloween and Thanksgiving. In terms of sports, every fan’s football team could make the playoffs, and the excitement of World Series baseball attracts even the most casual viewers.
But the promise of autumn is likely greatest for students, who are starting their school year; it’s a new year for them to learn, to develop, and to reinvent themselves. It’s an opportunity for them to set goals for the next nine months. The same is true for educators, whose school year is starting again. I’ve been teaching at the college level since 2003, and in that time, I’ve observed trends in making wise and unwise choices during this crucial time of year. I’ve also experienced the consequences of those choices myself, whether my decisions were shrewd or senseless. And I’d like to share two of these trends.
For students and teachers, the relevance will be direct. But I’d like to think the following observations will be useful to others, as well. Keep in mind, I’m labeling these “trends,” not ironclad rules — so I recognize they don’t always apply.
The first trend has to do with goal setting. I’ve noticed that those who follow the “golden mean” with goal setting come out of the academic year feeling more productive and satisfied with their accomplishments. I’ve also noticed that their work tends to be of a higher quality. By golden mean I’m simply referring to “balance” or “moderation.”
It’s an idea going back to Aristotle, who advised it as often the best course of action. When you’re setting goals, it’s important to challenge yourself, but leave yourself enough time to fully explore each of your experiences. It’s almost always true that tasks take longer than we first imagine, and it’s Murphy’s law that life will present challenges we weren’t expecting. These realities don’t need to discourage us or make us afraid to grab hold of our dreams, but we should be cautioned to only grab onto a few at a time.
To go back to classical Greece, again, it’s important to remember the story of Icarus, who would have been much happier listening to his father’s advice not to fly too close to the sun. In terms of the 21st Century, for students, I would translate this advice by saying pick a golden mean of classes and extracurricular activities; consider how this fits in with work and family obligations. Give yourself enough of a challenge that you’re breaking a mental and spiritual sweat, but give yourself enough time, so that you can dive deeply into each experience without feeling like you’re falling into the proverbial ocean.
The second trend has to do with what I’m going to call taffy aphorisms. An aphorism is just a saying, like a proverb or a pithy piece of advice. And by “taffy,” I just mean the candy that can stretch and bend in different directions. So, a taffy aphorism is a proverb that bends and stretches over time. I’ve noticed that people who create unbreakable New Year’s resolutions or immutable goals tend to become discouraged. We can call these goals hard candy aphorisms, and they’re tough to chew. Hard candy aphorisms can leave one unfulfilled for different reasons. First, it’s difficult to stick with something, and every mistake feels like a self-indictment. Instead of growing or learning, it’s easy to feel like a failure every time you fall short. But a second reason that hard candy aphorisms don’t work so well is that they don’t grow alongside ourselves. We each grow wiser, hopefully, as we grow older, so it stands to reason our aphorisms should grow alongside us.
In this sense, wisdom is like a map that is redrawn even as we follow its direction. So this autumn, give yourself an aphorism — or it can just be a word. Use that aphorism or word as a way to give your year a theme or direction. And as you grow, redefine what that word or saying means to you. Rather than feel like you’re failing an impossible task, you might feel like you’re learning while walking a trail you partially forge yourself.
So as the days get cooler, and we head into autumn, consider setting your goals with the golden mean and flexibility. Give yourself a challenge, but room to explore and wander as well.
Quentin Vieregge is an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire — Barron County.